Man, Myth and Legend: Lone Star Dietz

HIS NAME, all by itself, is unforgettable. But the historic prescience of it, relative to his singular place in Washington State football lore, elevates him to mythical stature.

Wicarhpi Isnala.

It translates to Lone Star.

Notre Dame has Rockne.

Washington State has Lone Star.

In the 108 years college football has been played in Pullman, just one man -- William Henry "Lone Star" Dietz -- has delivered the ultimate prize.

The son of a Sioux Indian mother from South Dakota and German father, Lone Star coached his last game at Washington State 85 years ago. He last set foot in Pullman in 1956, trying at age 72 to wake the echoes of his own greatness by quietly throwing his name into the ring for the open head coaching post.

He's been dead for 38 years, succumbing to cancer in Reading, Pa., in 1964.

Yet all these years later, Lone Star still looms over the Palouse like a Colossus.

So exalted is his place in Cougar lore that Mike Price for years reserved a spot in his office for a photo of Lone Star and the 1915 Cougars.

Price chose to look Lone Star in the face every day for one reason -- he's the only coach to guide a Washington State team to the Promised Land: Victory in the Rose Bowl.

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In an interview with CF.C three years ago, Price was asked about the photo. It's there, he said, to remind him every minute of every day that his job is not done.

More interesting is that Price is far from alone in his Star gazing.

Tom Benjey, a writer from Carlisle, Pa., where Dietz starred alongside Jim Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, has followed Lone Star's trail across the nation over the past couple of years for research on a book and screenplay about the coach's incredible life.

Two CF.C editors met unbridled enthusiasm at an alumni gathering in Tacoma last March with the suggestion that Lone Star's ashes be moved from their nondescript plot in Pennsylvania and placed in a grand tomb at the entrance to Martin Stadium.

Three weeks ago, the town of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, where Lone Star grew up, inducted him into its sports hall of fame.

And Paul Sorensen, past president of the Inland Northwest Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, has announced plans to nominate Lone Star for induction into the hall in 2003.

Gone, but definitely not long forgotten. Lone Star, it seems, has a permanent hold on us.

Indeed, on the eve of WSU's last Rose Bowl appearance the News Tribune of Tacoma devoted nearly 2,000 words, about four times the norm for a standard football feature, to "The Legend of Lone Star," which included turns as an accomplished artist, film actor, art teacher and magazine illustrator.

"Lone Star Dietz was a friend of Jim Thorpe, Walt Disney, Buffalo Bill Cody, George Halas and Glen 'Pop' Warner -- people who are on postage stamps. All the Lone Star ever got was a handshake," wrote the News Tribune's Bart Ripp.

Such a life. Such an enduring presence all these years later.

As well it should be.

Crimson old-timers, now dead themselves, talked about Dietz with equal parts fascination and admiration.

A guru of the then-new-age single-wing offense.

A defensive genius.

A brilliant motivator.

A showman supreme, known to ham it up for publicity photos in full Indian regalia.

He only spent three seasons on the Palouse, with World War I ending the ride before the 1918 campaign and then a bogus charge about false draft registration conspiring to foil his planned return in 1919 (see sidebar, The Curse of Lone Star?).

No matter. His work from 1915-1917 was enough to cement his legend as the greatest there ever was.

Inheriting a team that had failed to post a winning season in the previous five, he promptly led the Cougars to 17 wins, 2 losses and one tie over the next three years. That's an .875 winning percentage.

One season undefeated, another blemished with but a tie.

Points scored: 497. Points surrendered: 38.

Above all, of course, there was THE victory on January 1, 1916. Lone Star's 1915 squad -- dubbed the Warriors -- capped a perfect season by downing Brown 14-0 in what was the first of the continuous Tournament of Roses games.

Nearly every newspaper in the country carried photos of Lone Star "strolling the sideline in full tuxedo, stove pipe hat, and cane," writes Bernie McCarty of the Professional Football Researchers Association.

Proclaimed the Pullman Herald upon the team's return home, "The largest and most enthusiastic athletic demonstration ever held in the Pacific Northwest was staged in Pullman ….when the returning Washington State players, conquerors of Brown university's team, were greeted by a wild, howling, cheering throng that overflowed (railroad) station grounds and extended up Grand street at least a block."

Yip yip you, yip yip you, how we love you, oh you Sioux.

Politically incorrect today. A song of love for a head coach back then.

And so a legend was born.

From Gus Welch, Dietz's old teammate at Carlisle who succeeded him at Washington State, to Jim Walden, Dennis Erickson to Bill Doba --- and even the great Babe Hollingbery --- Cougar coaches have been chasing Lone Star ever since.

"The lore of the Lone Star is easy to glimpse but hard to grasp," the News Tribune wrote before the 1998 Rose Bowl.

Too true. Washington State has been trying to recapture the magic for nearly 90 years. No one understands that better, perhaps than Price – WSU's head coach for 14 seasons, a Cougar assistant for six years and a Cougar quarterback for two.

More than a third of Price's life has been spent, in one form or another, pursuing Lone Star. Which explains why that spot on his office wall --- a spot that could have been sporting a glossy of Jason Hanson, Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf or Lamont Thompson --- was instead reserved for Lone Star and his charges: Ace, Biff, Bull, Elmer, Silas and the rest in all their grainy black-and-white glory.

On January 1 against Oklahoma, Price and Doba -- two seconds away from chasing down Lone Star against Michigan in 1998 -- will take a second run at their elusive predecessor.

Years down the road we'll know he they succeeded if the coach's office in Bohler Gym has a special place on the wall reserved for Price, Doba and their merry band in all their crimson glory.

The author and his cousin, CF.C senior editor John Witter, were treated as youngsters by their Grandpa Stan --- a native of Palouse country --- to hours of colorful tales about the legend of Lone Star Dietz. "I think I was in college before I realized Lone Star wasn't a household name across the nation like Knute Rockne," quips John. "To us, he was -- and remains -- larger than life."

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